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Birds have begun to build their nests and the green begins to break through the cold soil as the days lengthen. The changing season sprouts new life from the barren winter ground as we shift into warmer, spring days that awaken the newfound life.

When it comes to gardening, I prefer to keep things simple, quick, and affordable—I don’t want to spend more time or money on something I could just buy from the market. To start seedlings in the past, I’ve thriftily used egg cartons, plastic cups and full-sized milk jugs to sprout seeds. This year, I’ve reused various containers readily available to most households that would normally be thrown out or recycled. These containers include:

  • Reuse containers for seed startingPlastic containers from fast food restaurants
  • Toilet paper rolls
  • Yogurt cups
  • Single-serve pop and milk bottles
  • Strawberry fruit containers

Check around with friends, family and neighbors to see if they will save them for you.

IMG_2864v2Fast food containers

I have a tendency to avoid fast food as much as I can, but every once in a while I need something quick and cheap. Many of the plastic containers—from salad containers to milkshake cups—are great for starting seeds. The only effort required is to poke holes in the bottom of the containers as well as the clear top if it came with one. This top will act as a miniature greenhouse for the seedlings to get a good start in.

Reuse toilet paper rolls to start seeds

Toilet paper rolls

Found in every household and one of the most common household wastes, I first heard about using toilet paper rolls to start seeds from Laura Rittenhouse’s Gardening Journal.

Toiler paper rolls for seedlings

She didn’t have much luck, but I decided to give them a try anyways. So far, they have been a success and are functioning similar to the peat pots bought in a store—they dry out about as often too. I’ve chosen this as my go-to option for additional seedlings this year.

To make them useable, I cut four slots in the bottom of the toilet paper rolls and folded them underneath. Place several of the rolls in an unused planter or container to hold them upright. To make my job easier, I did not put dirt around them as I do not want them to decompose faster. The idea is that the rolls can be replanted straight into the soil without disturbing the roots and where it will then decompose.

Yogurt cups

Incredibly popular, single serve yogurt cups make excellent seed starting containers.  Normally tossed into the trash or recycling bin, I’m sure it won’t take long to collect enough to start seeds in.

Individual serving yogurt cups, milk, and pop bottles make excellent seed starting containers.

Individual serving yogurt cups, milk, and pop bottles make excellent seed starting containers.

The only special attention required is to poke drainage holes in the bottom.

Pop bottles & milk bottles

Individual (16-20 oz.) pop and milk bottles will also make wonderful containers to start seeds in. Simply cut off the top and poke some holes in the bottom. Create a miniature greenhouse by reattaching the top and removing the cap.

Strawberry Fruit Containers

While it may be more difficult to collect mass quantities of strawberry fruit containers, they turn into seed starting containers with little work. Since they already have drainage holes, simply fill with soil and seeds of choice and they’ll be sprouting in no time! The lid even has vent holes so you can close it and let it act as a greenhouse to encourage quick germination.

Please remember to recycle all unused plastic containers after using. I usually try to save mine to reuse the next year because we don’t have easily accessible recycling.

 

We’ve posted before about how to make your own buttermilk, butter, and yogurt… but there’s more, and this one is even easier!

I love real cream almost as much as I love butter. It makes my occasional cups of coffee or chai much more enjoyable, and it factors into some delicious desserts and other treats. I delight in my homemade whipped cream, making it as thick as I want or flavoring it as desired. The canned kinds (or heaven forbid, Cool Whip) do not compare at all. The only thing I’m lacking now is a cow to give me my very own cream source…

Thankfully, there are plenty of dairy farms around, and I ordered some good Evans Farmhouse cream from my Wholeshare group. It’s a very good quality cream from grass-fed Jerseys, and you can see the difference just by looking at the color.

Even in a shoddy picture like this.

I normally make a batch of awesome butter with this cream, or add it into one of my Norwegian cookie recipes. I have also used some for whipped cream that I try to put in/on things, but sometimes I can’t resist eating it straight.

This time, though, I wanted to do something different.

Stonyfield used to produce cream-top whole milk yogurt that I loved. Now they no longer do, and I have to switch between the widely available Brown Cow or any number of lesser known in-state dairies such as Maple Hill Creamery, Hawthorne Valley Farm, or the previously noted Evans Farmhouse Creamery.

I got the idea that I wanted to make something that was sort of similar to that cream on top of the yogurts, but in more quantity so I could cover things with it or get really happily fat eating it on its own.

Upon reading a little about its uses, I decided that crème fraîche seemed like it might fit the bill. I’d never made it before, but happily, it’s extremely easy. It’s more about patience than anything else. This is a soured/cultured product, but it’s less tangy, thicker, and much fattier than regular yogurt. It is less sour and a little thinner than standard sour cream.

Supplies you will need:

  • - Container to hold the cream. Can be any size desired, according to the amount you want to make. Needs to be something non-reactive and clean (though it isn’t necessary to sterilize it). Glass or plastic bowls are what I use. If you live with animals or anything that might disturb the cream, make sure you have a hiding spot or a good cover for the container.
  • - Source of starter culture. This can be buttermilk, sour cream, or any reasonably good quality yogurt that doesn’t have too many additives.
  • - The cream itself. It’s best to use cream that has NOT been ultra-pasteurized, because it tends to thicken up faster if it isn’t. However, contrary to what you might hear, you CAN make very successful crème fraîche with ultra-pasteurized cream. I have done both and can’t tell much difference between them in the end.

You may also want measuring cups and spoons, though it’s not an exact science so it’s not entirely necessary.

The tray is actually an old container from Chinese takeout... ;>_>

The tray is actually an old container from Chinese takeout… ;>_>

It’s so easy…

  • - Pour out the cream into your container.
  • - Next, mix in your starter source, be it any of the three choices. You want about 2 tablespoons of the starter source for every 1 cup of cream.
  • - Stir gently with a clean spoon, knife, stir-stick, or whatever else you have around. The goal is to evenly combine the cream with the culture. I just try to make the mixture smooth so there’s no ‘chunks’.
  • - Set it in a warm-ish place where it won’t get knocked over. If you use a lid, some say it’s best to leave it partially open so the good bacteria can ‘breathe’, but from my experience, it works fine even with the lid completely sealed.
  • - Just wait anywhere from 12-24 hours and you should have your crème fraîche.

That’s right – there is no extra work, no extra heating, nothing. My kitchen is about 70-75 degrees and it works just fine in about 22 hours. If your area is warmer than that, it might be done faster. If its cooler, it might go slower. If your cream is ultra-pasteurized, it may take a few hours more than my given time frame as well.

You want to look and see it becoming more solid. If you’re like me, you peek at it during the process. It starts out liquid, and is liquid for much of the time. When it’s done, though, it gets thicker and more like yogurt in appearance. It doesn’t ‘flow’ when you tip it, it tends to ‘slide’. If you spoon some up and drop it back into the container, it sort of holds the shape you dropped it in. That means it’s done. You can also leave it out longer for an even thicker, tangier product. Don’t be afraid to taste and see what you like.

It’s safe and fine to eat it as is at at this stage, although I like to refrigerate it first, because that thickens it up even more. You can mix or dip things in to your heart’s content. It’s also good for cooking, as it tends to resist curdling/separating.

I like to stir in a couple spoonfuls of honey before sticking it in the fridge, and it comes out ready to be put on fruit or enjoyed out of the bowl in all of its butt-expanding glory.

After being fridged. This batch was made with ultra-pasteurized cream – proof that it works!

Meyer Lemon Tree BlossomsDespite a warmer than average winter, I’ve been going over my gardening plans for the coming seasons as I focus on my indoor garden. It’s rare for me to talk about what I do and my upcoming gardening plans. I currently live in an urban apartment where gardening space is limited, but have learned to maximize the small space available with container gardening.

I base most of what I do with my garden off of gut instinct and luck in combination with the knowledge I’ve picked up through trial and error over the years.

What Worked

  • Mixing My Own Soil

Living in an apartment, my access to soil and compost is incredibly limited. In the past I’ve relied on a popular brand of potting soil with varying results. My goal this past year was to find a more rich soil mixture that required less maintenance. I ended up using a mixture of potting soil, a high quality compost, sand, and soil conditioner mixed in accordance to the needs of individual plants.

Mixing my own soil turned out to be the best thing I could have done for my little container garden—it retained moisture without becoming waterlogged. To cut down on cost, I looked for ripped, discounted bags at garden centers. The potting soil I used was leftover from the prior year and I would recommend cutting it out completely if possible.

  • OrchidsOrchids

During the winter, mold can be a major problem with indoor plants. My apartment has poor air circulation that created a severe mold problem with the sphagnum moss potting medium used for my orchids. The mold caused root rot, so the decision was made to replant them in bark which has completely abolished the mold problem. While still healing from the mold attack a year later, all have stabilized and look to be healthy.

  • Lizard TerrariumTerrarium

After longing for a terrarium, I finally created a large and nearly self-maintaining eco-system plus an additional lizard. A layer of rocks under the soil help create a self-watering system that the plants thrive on. Beneficial springtails help to tidy the enclosure and decompose waste. Can’t wait to add some live moss!

  • Overwintering Herbs

Currently, our mild winter has made wintering over the many herbs and plants incredibly simple. The hardier plants are unmoved since summer while the more tender are housed in a small pop-up greenhouse for protection from the winter nip.

  • Container PondContainer Pond

Mid-summer, I picked up side project and turned a large, cracked planter into a container pond. This was an especially cheap and simple project—the container was clearanced for $6. Easy to maintain, the pond and goldfish within provided a tranquil addition to an already relaxing jungle. The goldfish have adapted well to overwintering in a tank inside

What Didn’t Work

  • Balcony GardenLack of Space

This past year, I grew both lemongrass and tomatoes; however, both plants grow fairly large and take up a lot of space. Since they shaded out many of my other plants, I have decided I will not grow them this coming year in order to make room for new plants.

  • Various Tropicals

I grow many tropicals that rotate between inside and outside depending on the weather. Both last winter and this current winter, I have found molding soil due to my apartment’s poor air circulation. Currently I have been treating with cinnamon to keep the mold at bay, but would like to find a better solution in the future.

After busting the pot on my large White Bird of Paradise, I attempted to repot it on my own despite suspicions it would be a two person job. I was unprepared for the thick, stiff roots that grew straight down and the three plants separated as I loosened the old soil. In the end, I ended up with leaning plants that were growing into one another.

My cats have done a good job of eating the foliage and even killing a few. I have resorted to placing them in odd places so the plants will have time to begin their recovery.

Looking Ahead

  • Seed SproutingSeed Sprouting

The warmer than average winter is wreaking havoc on my gardening plans as I’ve been cautious of planting seeds with worries they’ll sprout too early. However, I have picked up some new seeds to try of which includes fenugreek, cattails for my pond and cat grass in hopes of distracting the cats from my tropicals.

  • Enduring Soil

When I created a soil mixture last spring, I tried to plan ahead in anticipation of this growing season as I wanted the repotting to be minimal. I added plenty of soil conditioner to each pot in hopes that it would decompose throughout the year, leaving another year of rich soil for each plant to continue growing in. I am eager to see how well (hopefully) this has worked out.

  • Meyer Lemon Tree in FlowerLemon Tree

I will endure the continual wait for the first lemons to ripen on my Meyer Lemon tree. I’m also hoping to see the growth even out a little more this year. The tree is currently in full bloom with a scent that fills the entire room; however, I won’t be leaving many lemons to grow as it’s still a young tree.

After a fairly successful year, this coming year looks to be a promising experience with plenty of room to grow and expand my gardening knowledge. So, how did your garden grow this past year? Got any interesting plans for the 2013 season?

With its strong association to the holidays, homemade eggnog was a holiday tradition growing up. I always had a strong affinity for the wintery drink despite it being quite an acquired taste. Despite the hefty price tag at the store, this festive drink is fairly easy to make. Eggnog is best made the night before or early in the morning to give it enough time to chill.

Ingredients:

  • 12 large eggs, separated
  • 1 ½ c. sugar
  • 6 c. whole milk
  • 2 c. heavy cream
  • 1 Tbps. vanilla extract
  • 2 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 2 c. bourbon or 1½ c. bourbon & ½ c. rum (optional)

Directions:

Separate yolks and whites.

Separate yolks and whites.

Separate eggs. Set aside egg whites.

Mix yolks and sugar until pale yellow.

Mix yolks and sugar until pale yellow.

In a bowl large, whisk together egg yolks and granulated sugar until thick and pale yellow. Set aside.

Add milk, cream, vanilla to pot.

Add milk, cream, vanilla to pot.

Combine milk, heavy cream and vanilla in a large pot. Slowly heat over medium heat until hot and just about to simmer.

Stir quickly to temper the mixture.

Stir quickly to temper the mixture.

Slowly pour the hot milk mixture into egg yolk mixture. Stir continuously to temper.*

The mixture will lose the white foam when it begins to thicken, then will coat a metal spoon when done.

The mixture will lose the white foam when it begins to thicken, then will coat a metal spoon when done.

Pour mixture back into pot. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly—about 18-20 minutes. Mixture will thicken and coat a metal spoon. Do not allow mixture to boil or it will curdle.

Mix in nutmeg.

Mix in nutmeg.

Remove from heat. Stir in nutmeg. Cover and chill for 8 hours. Sticking the mixture in a freezer will speed along the process, but must be stirred frequently.

Beat until stiff peaks form.

Beat until stiff peaks form.

Once mixture is chilled, beat egg whites until stiff peaks form. Fold egg whites into mixture. If desired, stir in bourbon/rum.

Before serving, sprinkle top with nutmeg.

Tips:

  • *Tempering the milk and egg yolk mixture prevents the eggs from cooking in the hot milk.
  • Did the egg and milk mixture begin curdling? Try vigorously whisking the mixture until smooth again.
  • When beating egg whites, make sure they’re room temperature and add ¼ tsp. salt or cream of tartar to stabilize whites.
  • If not adding the alcohol, eggnog may seem thick, but usually deflates with time. Because of this, I prefer to make mine the night before as I feel it always tastes better the following day.

Looking for last minute holiday cookie ideas? This year, I chose a mix of traditional Christmas cookies along with the always popular Chocolate Chip Cookie. As usual, I have made some changes to the recipes, listing my suggestions below.

LEBKUCHEN (The Spice Cookbook yr 1964)

This traditional German Christmas cookie will keep for at least three months if kept in an airtight container. The flavor will improve with age and is best served 3-4 days after baking.

LebkuchenIngredients:

  • ¾ c. honey
  • ¾ c. sugar
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 tsp. lemon zest
  • 1 Tbps. milk
  • 2 ¾ c. sifted all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. ground cloves
  • 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. ground allspice
  • ½ c. chopped citron
  • ½ c. chopped blanched almonds
  • Confectioners’ Sugar and Water Glaze*

Heat honey to boiling point (DO NOT BOIL) in a saucepan large enough for mixing dough. Stir in sugar. Beat in egg. Blend in lemon zest and milk.

Sift together flour, salt, cloves, cinnamon and allspice. Gradually stir into the honey-sugar mixture. Add citron and almonds. Chill dough overnight

Spread in 2 lightly greased and lightly floured 9”x9”x2” pans. Bake in a preheated oven (400F) 15 minutes or until done. While cookies are hot; quickly brush tops with Confectioners’ Sugar and Water Glaze. Cool in pans. Cut each square into 32 bars. Store airtight.

Yield: 64 bars

*Confectioners’ Sugar and Water Glaze

  • 4 tsp. water
  • 1 c. sifted confectioners’ sugar

Stir water into confectioners’ sugar. Mix well.

Yield: Glaze for a 9-inch square cake

Tip:

  • Try adding lemon zest to the glaze mixture for a little extra kick in flavor.
  • Also try rolling dough into 1-inch balls and bake for 7-10 minutes. While hot, lightly brush cookies with Confectioners’ Sugar and Water Glaze.

MEXICAN WEDDING CAKES (Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)

What cookie isn’t known by more names?

Mexican Wedding CakesIngredients:

  • 1 c. butter, softened
  • ½ c. powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 2 ¼ c. all-purpose flour
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • ¾ c. finely chopped nuts
  • Powdered sugar

Heat oven to 400F. Mix butter, ½ c. powdered sugar, and vanilla. Mix in flour, salt and nuts until dough holds together.

Shape into 1-inch balls. Place about 1-inch apart on ungreased cookie sheet. Bake until set, but not brown, 10-12 minutes.

Roll in powdered sugar while warm. Cool. Roll in powdered sugar again.

Yield: approximately 4 dozen cookies

Tip:

  • This dough can become very soft, so chill in the fridge for a few hours before rolling.

ROSETTES (Swedish Food)

A well-loved traditional Swedish fried cookie.

Ingredients:

  • 2 eggs
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1/3 c. sugar
  • 1 c. flour
  • 2/3 c. heavy cream

To fry:

Deep fat or oil

Beat eggs, egg yolk, and cream together. Add flour and sugar. Stir until well blended. Let stand 2 hours.

Put rosette iron in cold fat to cover. Heat fat to 375F, remove iron, drain on absorbent paper and dip I nto well stirred batter. Hold coated iron over hot fat for a moment before dipping in. Cook until golden brown. Remove, slip rosette carefully from iron and drain on absorbent paper. Heat iron again and repeat. Sprinkle rosettes with sugar.

CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES (Betty Crocker’s Cookbook)

A simple cookie that is sure to please everyone!

Chocolate Chip CookiesIngredients:

  • ½ c. sugar
  • ½ c. packed brown sugar
  • 1/3 c. butter, softened
  • 1/3 c. shortening or oil
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 ½ c. all-purpose flour
  • ½ tsp. baking soda
  • ½ tsp. salt
  • 1 package (6 ounces) semisweet chocolate chips
  • ½ c. chopped nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 375F. Mix sugars, butter, shortening (or oil), egg and vanilla. Stir in remaining ingredients.

Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls about 2-inches apart onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake until light brown, 8-10 minutes. Cool slightly before removing from cookie sheet.

Yield: approximately 3 ½ dozen cookies

Tips:

  • Add a little cinnamon for the perfect little something’ to kick up the flavor.
  • Short on time? Make a sheet cookie by doubling all ingredients and press dough into a foil-lined jelly roll pan. Bake at 350F for 20-25 minutes.

Interested in learning how to make Old-fashioned Fudge to add to your arsenal of Christmas baked goods? Check out How to Make Old-fashioned Fudge and Fix Mistakes for simple, step-by-step instructions.

Old-fashioned FudgeOld-fashioned fudge (without marshmallows!) has a reputation for being finicky and tough. It will quickly tire arms out—my mom even has stories of sharing the efforts of fudge making with her siblings. Making fudge has been a bane in my baking existence for several years. I couldn’t get it to set no matter how cautious I was with measurements and temperature. Through my search for a good recipe, I have found one that has yet to fail me with resolutions to prevent and fix common mistakes.

I have had no problems with the following recipe. The fudge has always turned out completely smooth. I use a hand mixer with no ill effects and it does not get grainy if I overbeat. I was even able to fix it when I didn’t cook it enough due to a candy thermometer that wasn’t calibrated correctly (Correct calibration is essential). Testing for soft ball* stage does work as I have successfully made it this way as well. The most important thing is making sure to watch the fudge and the temperatures throughout the entire cooking process.

Ingredients (Recipe from – Better Homes & Garden: The New Cook Book yr.1965):

  • 2 c. sugar
  • ¾ c. milk
  • 2 1-ounce squares of unsweetened chocolate
  • Dash of salt
  • 1 tsp. corn syrup**
  • 2 Tbps. butter
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • ½ c. chopped nuts (optional)***

Getting Started

Butter the sides of a heavy saucepan—this will prevent the sugar from sticking and crystalizing.Old-fashioned Fudge

Combine sugar, milk, unsweetened chocolate, salt and corn syrup.Old-fashioned Fudge

Cook over a medium heat, stirring constantly until sugar dissolves and mixture is boiling.

Lower temperature to a simmer and do not stir unless necessary. Cook until it reaches 234F or soft ball stage***.Old-fashioned Fudge

Immediately remove from heat and cool in cold water (no ice) until it reaches 110F. While cooling, add butter on top of mixture—do not stir.

Once cool, add vanilla.Old-fashioned Fudge

Beat fudge—this will get tiring, so either find a few extra, willing arms; however, I always cheat and use a hand mixer. Once the fudge thickens and loses its gloss, pour into a buttered pan.

***Optionally, stir in nuts at the end of the beating time.Old-fashioned Fudge

Fixing Mistakes

  • Too thick: If fudge became too thick during beating (Oops! The hand mixer can be overzealous), knead with hands until it softens then press into buttered pan or roll and slice. Optionally, cut cute shapes with cookie cutters!
  • Too soft: If it doesn’t set, it was either poured too soon (Tired arms! Give me a break!) or wasn’t cooked enough. Fix by mixing in ¼ c. milk and recooking to 234F or soft ball stage. Cool to 110F. Beat until it loses gloss.Testing for soft ball stage

*Testing for Soft Ball Stage

Test for soft ball stage (234F-238F) by dropping mixture into a bowl of cold water (no ice). If ready, mixture will hold shape and can be formed into a soft ball between your fingers.

**Substitute Corn Syrup

If you do not have corn syrup, you may make a substitute sugar syrup by combining:

  • 2 c. sugar
  • 3/4 c. water
  • 1/4 tsp. cream of tartar
  • 1 pinch salt

Heat until boiling. Lower heat to a simmer and put lid on for 3 minutes to soften any sugar crystals. Cook until it arrives at 234F, or soft ball stage. Syrup will keep for approximately two months. I have tried this and it does work—I never have corn syrup around.

Candied citrus peel can be a special treat enjoyed anytime of the year and often used in holiday baking. Have a recipe that calls for candied citron, but unable to locate any? Try making your own or substituting with homemade candied lemon peel. Luckily, candied peels are simple to make and the taste will be unrivaled when compared to something bought in a grocery store.

Remove citrus peels.

Remove citrus peels.

Start by peeling the chosen citrus, I chose lemons as a substitute for citron in a recipe. I found the easiest way to do this was to cut the outside into 5-6 sections, skin-deep and then simply peeling back the skin.

Clean off the peels, ensuring there is no fruit attached. You may also choose to remove the white pith. Since I was looking to substitute for the thick-skinned citron, I chose to leave the piths attached.

Slice citrus peels.

Slice citrus peels.

Thinly slice the peels into strips, lengthwise.

Cover citrus peels with cold water, boil.

Cover citrus peels with cold water, boil.

Place peels in a pot, cover with cold water. Slowly bring water to a boil, simmer 10-15 minutes. Replace the water 3-5 times and re-boil to help remove any bitter flavors.

Simmer peels in sugar syrup.

Simmer peels in sugar syrup.

Combine the citrus peels with a sugar syrup (listed below) and bring to a boil. Simmer peels until syrup is nearly gone.

Sugar Syrup (for every two cups of peels):

  • ¼ cup water
  • ½ cup sugar

Let peels dry for only a couple minutes—I used a strainer to help drain off excess syrup.

The finished product! Yum!

The finished product! Yum!

Roll in sugar and dry on waxed paper. However, if using the peels for baking, rolling in sugar is optional.

Once dry, store in an airtight container.

Looking for a sweet treat? Try dipping in melted chocolate—they make excellent holiday gifts!

Lebkuchen made with homemade candied lemon peels as a substitute for the citron required.

Lebkuchen made with homemade candied lemon peels as a substitute for the citron required.

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